Historic Structures

Union Pacific Railroad Depot, Kelso California

Date added: January 1, 2021 Categories: California Train Station

Construction of the railway line between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, via Las Vegas, began in 1901 with the formation of the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad Company by prominent Senator Williams Andrews Clark. In 1902, half of the railroad's stock was acquired by the Union Pacific Railroad, which was looking for an outlet to the California coast from its terminus in Ogden, Utah. The line opened for business on 1 May 1905. In 1916, the company shortened its name to the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. In 1921, the Union Pacific Railroad bought the remainder of the railroad's stock from Senator Clark, although it continued to use the LA & SL RR name until 1988.

The settlement at Kelso began in April 1904 as a tent camp for the railroad construction crew, known as Siding No. 16. By 1906, several warehouses, as engine shed, a lunchroom with attached sleeping quarters, and a small wood frame depot had been constructed. The settlement was renamed Kelso after one of the camp's warehousemen. Kelso became an important railroad town both because of its location as a "helper station" where trains could take on an additional locomotive for climbing the Cima grade to the east, as well as because local wells provided a reliable source of water for refueling steam locomotives.

In 1922, fire destroyed the Kelso lunchroom. The Union Pacific Railroad, already in the process of upgrading its facilities along the line, decided to build a new and much larger depot at Kelso. The new building was designed by the Office of the Engineer of the LA & SL RR in Los Angeles. The original construction drawings, labeled "Club House and Restaurant," was to contain dining facilities for passengers (on trains without dining cars) and railroad employees, rooms for the dining room staff, hotel rooms and recreational facilities for railroad employees, and baggage handling facilities. The depot was designed in the Spanish Colonial Mission Revival style, which had been selected by the Union Pacific Railroad as the appropriate thematic style for its buildings along the route between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Construction began in 1923 and the building was opened on 2 May 1924.

The community at Kelso reached its apogee during World War II, when its population boomed to over 1,500 people. The Union Pacific Railroad greatly increased the number of its crews at Kelso in order to handle the increase in war-related traffic. The opening of the nearby Vulcan Iron Mine in 1942 brought additional workers to the area. During this time, the depot assumed a role as the de facto community center for Kelso. The restaurant, commonly known as "the Beanery" operated 24 hours a day. The building housed numerous social events, and even served as a courtroom for the local Justice of the Peace.

With the end of the war, however, Kelso began a gradual decline to its present near-ghost town status. The Vulcan Mine closed in 1948. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Union Pacific replaced all of its steam locomotives with diesels, thus eliminating the need to stop at Kelso to take on water. The inclusion of diner cars on all of its trains likewise eliminated the need for meal stops for passengers. Helper service at Kelso was ended in 1959. In 1962 the depot functions at Kelso were terminated. The Union Pacific Railroad continued to operate the building as a hotel and restaurant for employees until 30 June 1985, when, after sixty-one years of service, the depot was closed for good.

Threaten with demolition after its closure, the depot became the focus of the preservation efforts of a coalition of concerned local citizens. In 1992, the building was purchased by the Bureau of Land Management, as part of the East Mojave Nation Scenic Area. In 1994, jurisdiction was transferred to the National Park Service, and the Union Pacific RR Depot at Kelso became the architectural centerpiece of the newly created Mojave National Preserve.